World’s oldest insect inspires a new generation of aerogels

A team of international scientists have created a new form of highly-efficient, low-cost insulation based on the wings of a dragonfly.

The material, known as an aerogel, is the most porous material known to man and ultralight, with a piece the size of a family car weighing less than a kilogram.

Starting out as a wet silica gel, similar in structure to jelly, the material is carefully dried to create a strong, porous material. But until now, removing the water molecules without collapsing the fine silica structure has been a long, difficult and expensive process and as a consequence, the use of aerogels has been limited to a few highly specialized tasks, such as the collection of stardust in space.

Now a team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has managed to cheaply replicate the process by mimicking the way in which the dragonfly dries out its wings.

Instead of drying the silica under high temperature and pressure, the team used bicarbonate of soda (the same used to make cakes rise) to ‘blow’ out the water molecules, trapping carbon dioxide gas in the pores.

Publishing their findings today in the academic journal Advanced Materials, the team say the next step will be to scale up the process to create larger panels that can be used to insulate our homes and buildings.

Dr. Lidija Šiller, joint lead author and a nanoscale scientist at Newcastle University who worked on the research with Dr. Xiao Han, Khalil Hassan, and Dr. Adrian Oila, also of Newcastle University, explains:

“The potential of this discovery in terms of reducing energy use and therefore our energy bills is really exciting.

“Aerogels are an amazing material – safe, light and ten times more insulating than what we are using now – but until now they have been out of reach for the majority of us because they are so expensive to make. Our research is a step towards making them widely available.”

Read more: World’s oldest insect inspires a new generation of aerogels

thumbnail courtesy of